Yesterday, one of my friends asked me what was with all the arms-in-the-air salutes at Trump’s poorly-attended MAGA rally in Youngstown. I said it was a kind of quasi-religious/quasi-fascist supplication, indicating that the spirit had filled them. I noticed the same thing at a Doug Mastriano rally over the weekend. The Republican Party is falling down the toilet of fascism and the party leaders seem to have given up fighting it. Many seem to have deluded themselves into thinking it’s just some aggressive Christianity. And as Sam Kestenbaum made clear over the weekend in his Rolling Stone essay, 'I Think All the Christians Get Slaughtered': Inside the MAGA Road Show Barnstorming America, the similarities are impossible to miss.
“The cast,” he wrote, “assembles on the megachurch stage, each taking their turn in a pool of light. There are doomsaying prophets with curved shofars, aspiring politicians lamenting election fraud, and naturopathic physicians warning of demonic invasion. Mike Lindell steps forward and says evil forces are undoing the nation. Roger Stone gives an apocalyptic homily. Michael Flynn lobs T-shirts into the pews. Scott McKay, alias Patriot Streetfighter, gyrates to the sounds of AC/DC while chopping a tomahawk in the air. In time, the Trump brothers appear and Eric puts his dad on speaker phone. Praise music floats in the air and the crowd rocks back and forth. At one moment, a woman drops to the floor— ‘Hallelujah, hallelujah’— and speaks in tongues. Standing at stage-right, surveying the festivities this July night in Virginia Beach, is a tall, bespectacled 41-year-old man named Clay Clark. With cropped blond hair and a toothy grin, he steps up to the lectern between each act, standing near a variety show gong. ‘Alright, ladies and gentlemen, how many of you believe Jesus is king? How many of you believe that Donald J. Trump is their president?’ Whoops from the pews. ‘How many of you believe that Michael Flynn is America’s general?’ More applause. ‘And how many of you believe in the power of prayer?’”
Equal parts tent revival, campaign rally, and three-ring circus, this is the latest stop on the ReAwaken America Tour, a monthly MAGA pageant that fills megachurches across the country. Before last year, Clark was a provincial talk-show personality and business guru from Oklahoma; today he is a Vince McMahon frontman of a misinformation megashow. Here, the election was stolen from Trump; the pandemic is a horrific hoax; and a cabal of Luciferian cultists, including George Soros, seek world domination. There are End Times oracles, exorcists, multilevel marketers, New Agey health gurus, naturopathic bodybuilders, and QAnon crusaders all swaying together under one tent.
In Clark’s career, he has been a regional mogul and a self-help author; he oversaw a dog training company, a barbershop chain, and a photo business. He once ran for mayor. Now, he’s tapping into a mix of pandemic conspiracies, God-and-flag patriotism, Stop the Steal fervor, and spiritual supernaturalism— and reaping the benefits. He is not precisely a flame-breathing demagogue, but he is a capitalist who has found his product: culture-war spectacle.
Clark is the most American of all archetypes: the man-on-the-make. The fixer with the Rolodex. In Yiddish, the macher. Aspirational, a bit mercenary, ultimately effective. “Get-it-done-ers” is how he refers to himself and those around him: “I like the people who are always moving.”
The cast he has curated is a who’s who of the far-right, and reveals the oddball ecumenism of the movement. The retired general Flynn is the big-name headliner, joining dozens of other A- and B-listers like millionaire Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, anti-vaccine figurehead Andrew Wakefield, famed conspiracist Alex Jones, and Turning Point USA head Charlie Kirk. In-person crowds at each event swell from roughly 3,000 to 10,000, organizers say, with millions tuning in online. This is a networking opportunity and merchandising bonanza, with new and fruitful alliances taking shape at each stop.
In the months after the January 6 insurrection, Clark’s shows emerged as pandemic-era hubs for the MAGA faithful to gather and strategize. Liberal watchdogs and advocacy groups— Right Wing Watch, the Anti-Defamation League, and others— began raising the alarm about ReAwaken soon after its launch, describing Clark as an extremist agitator, whose tours could be bringing the country closer to more political violence. “These events add to the divisions in our country,” says Marilyn Mayo, an ADL researcher who compiled a report on Clark. “We very much need to be concerned.”
…This is the sort of place where Fox News hosts are lambasted as liberal propagandists, face masks of any sort are strictly forbidden, and anyone found with one might be theatrically escorted off site. “I won’t allow you to wear one for the same reason I won’t allow people to defecate on the stage,” Clark says.
While there are precedents to ReAwaken, this show is not populated by the old-school stalwarts of the religious right (Jerry Fallwell’s Moral Majority feels a universe away) nor does it have the institutional heft of a CPAC (he joyfully sneers at such events as “staged, contrived, manipulated”). Clark prides himself on offering something stranger, livelier, and way more extreme.
…Clark voted for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020 and traveled to the capitol to speak on Jan. 5, 2021 at the invitation of the group known as the Black Robe Regiment. With Stop the Steal flags billowing behind him, he spoke to an assembly about how Covid-19 was a fraud and the sickness was nothing to be afraid of. Clark was there on Jan. 6 to hear Trump speak, but says he did not make it to the site of the Capitol breach itself. “I don’t know what really happened there,” he says. “It seems like some bad stuff.”
Back in Tulsa, Clark had begun holding churchy town hall gatherings in his office, bringing together the local business crowd with other like-minded conservatives, like Zoellner’s friend, ORU alum and Christian rocker Sean Feucht, who had launched his own anti-lockdown music show, and local pastor Jackson Lahmeyer, who was then running in the Republican primary. It was at one of these gatherings where Clark connected with Flynn, who had been impressed after hearing him speak on a podcast with QAnon booster Ann Vandersteel. “He could tell I was a knowledgeable guy,” Clark says. The two discussed what would become the ReAwaken tour. “I said to General Flynn, ‘Hey, you know, I felt God wants us to do a tour,’” Clark recalls. “And the general said, ‘Yeah, I know.’”
Their first large event, then called Clay Clark’s Health and Freedom Conference, was held in April of 2021 at Rhema Bible College, a Pentecostal landmark in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Tickets for that show, and future ones, were tiered: $500 for front-row VIP and $250 for general admission, with pay-as-you-can discounts. Some speakers were compensated for travel, organizers say, and also given the opportunity to sell their wares. The event drew thousands and garnered headlines with promises of a ritualized face-mask fire. (Clark says the bonfire didn’t materialize, after all.) “Hug somebody you don’t know,” he told the crowd that weekend. “Covid won’t kill ya.”
Clark’s vision for the show would gradually take on a more supernatural aura. Encouraged by his wife Vanessa and other friends, he began checking out a steady stream of prophecy-themed content— published by Pentecostal outlets like Charisma Media and Elijah Streams— where self-proclaimed oracles viewed current events through an otherworldly lens and heralded Trump as a divinely-ordained leader.
…There are moments when it seems Clark may have bitten off more than he can chew. The shows bring in $300,000 on average, but he says that money normally goes straight into expenses such as security, rental fees, and reimbursing speakers. Clark looks to be betting on some hazy payoff down the line, but for now says he’s losing money. In February of 2022, Clark was sued by a former executive from Dominion Voting Systems, Inc. for defamation— “defendants have monetized a false election fraud narrative,” the complaint reads— and says that he is facing about $90,000 a month in the ongoing suit. (Clark has raised $77,000 towards his defense on one crowdfunding site, with an unmet goal of $1 million.) Other ReAwaken cast members recount their financial woes on stage, too. Flynn, who is looking at several million in legal fees of his own, regularly urges the crowd to support the greater cause by donating to speakers. “You have to decide who you’re going to support,” he says. “Put everything you’ve got into it.”
Internecine squabbles also break out, and the tour has seen some tragedy. The conspiracy crew can often turn their paranoid gaze on one another and Mark Taylor, a former firefighter and now prophecy-themed author has taken up the idea that Clark is, in fact, an Illuminati stooge. And in December 2021, after a handful of attendees got sick in Texas,preposterousrumors circulated that the crowd at the event had been poisoned by anthrax. Some weeks later, one speaker, the anti-vaccine podcast host Doug Kuzma, 61, died after testing positive for Covid-19. Clark maintains Covid isn’t fatal, the tests are a sham, and says Kuzma was just a sickly man. “If you have 5,000 people somewhere, someone is eventually going to get sick,” Clark says.
Events are planned down to the wire, schedules changing hours before the doors open, with some speakers never showing up at all. The ReAwaken staff is ragtag— made up of about a dozen workers, paid about $15 an hour, plus commissions— and travels with Clark to and from venues in a rattling eight-person van, the floor cluttered with supplies, sleeping in the back between shifts at the wheel. One employee, Derrick Sisney, tells me staff turnover is quick. “This work is not for everybody,” he says.
Back at the Virginia megachurch, Clark and the staff stand inside the dim auditorium considering a promo image that is displayed on a glowing screen. Flynn, flanked by guards, hovers nearby. Early birds and vendors have begun arriving outside, yet Clark is still putting the finishing touches on this image, which he has been working on for months. He still keeps an early sketch in a battered journal nearby, and shows me with some pride. He says, “This is my art.”
The graphic has the soaring feel of a Marvel knockoff. On one side, the villains: George Soros, Bill Gates and others from the Davos set. Opposing them: the ReAwaken lineup. It suggests a Clay Clark Extended Universe of never-ending culture war spinoffs and side quests, a doomsday forever fast-approaching yet never arriving. A Bible floats above the heroes, a venomous snake above the baddies. Explosive lightning bolts frame the scene.
“Sweet, right?” he says. “It’s us versus them.”
Trump may model himself after Roy Cohn, Mussolini, Hitler and Putin to a great extent, but even more of a role model was P.T. Barnum. He's been compared to Barnum frequently throughout his career-- and he's always said he takes it as a compliment. Neither Phineas Taylor Barnum nor Señor Trumpanzee coined the phrase "there's a sucker born every minute," but both men have lived their lives as though they did. Barnum plagued Americans for most of the 19th Century, a hustler and grifter who Trump has always admired. He was a businessman/showman, author and politician. He freely admitted that his actions were meant to "put money in my own coffers" and, more than anything else he considered himself "a showman by profession." His name is synonymous with hoaxes and self-serving "philanthropy." Like Trump, he made some spectacularly bad investments and went bankrupt. And like Trump, he ran for office, as a Republican. He served 2 terms in the Connecticut state legislature and one term as mayor of Bridgeport.